The Job Market: Fizzle or
looks at what is and isn’t hot in paralegal employment trends.
By Rod Hughes
Depending on who
you speak to, you may hear the U.S. economy has either been put
indefinitely on ice following years of unprecedented growth or is simply
making a necessary market correction in anticipation of heating up again
in 2002. While the pundits pontificate, employees in the legal
marketplace are reevaluating their situations, attempting to gauge where
the market is headed and how it will impact them.
Legal Assistant Today recently
interviewed approximately 10 legal staffing and recruiting firms
regarding current hiring trends to determine if what lies ahead is a
long, cold economic recovery or if the job market will begin to sizzle
again before the new year is ushered in.
A Thaw or the
In early July, the U.S. Department of Labor released its June
report on employment in the United States. The report stated while there
has been a one-tenth of a percent increase in the unemployment rate
(holding at 4.5 percent at press time), that rate has not changed
significantly since April. Additionally, people working part time for
economic reasons increased by 266,000 to a total of 3.6 million. People
in the part-time category reported wanting to work full time, but were
unable to find such work or had their hours reduced. Economic conditions
have changed dramatically from last year when, in October 2000,
unemployment reached an all-time low of 3.9 percent. A slow-down in the
technology and manufacturing sectors has sent ripples through the
economy and many employers are now taking preventative measures —
including layoffs — to protect themselves should the economy slip into a
recession. With some businesses cutting back in anticipation of
depressed consumer confidence, law firms are watching the horizon and
Wall Street carefully to determine the next course of action.
The Legal Assistant Management
Association (LAMA) is also watching economic developments. Meredith
Larabee, president of LAMA and director of legal assistants at Snell &
Wilmer in Phoenix, said LAMA members are worried about the potential
direction the U.S. economy may take.
“Concern has been expressed among LAMA
members about whether downsizing will take place and whether paralegals
will be the first to go if history repeats itself. Others have disagreed
saying the higher-priced associates would be the first to go if firms
cut back. But I really have not heard of any serious developments [in
either case],” Larabee explained. In fact, contrary to some regional
trends, Larabee reported that her firm is actively seeking legal
assistant employment candidates.
According to results of a survey
released in July by The Affiliates, Larabee’s firm is in good company
regarding a positive outlook on growth. The Affiliates’ survey included
responses from 200 attorneys in the nation’s largest law firms.
According to the survey, 92 percent of respondents said they anticipated
the number of attorneys in their firms to increase over the next three
Whether that confidence will translate
into positive reassurances for paralegals remains to be seen.
In truth, legal professionals are either on the cusp of economic
recovery or just a few steps away from the beginning of a steep decline.
“The economic slow down which is facing
the country is still a fairly new phenomena. As a result, firms are not
overreacting. They are simply exercising a little more caution in their
hiring practices. It’s likely that if the economy continues to struggle
and more industries’ bottom lines are affected, this in turn will
negatively affect the hiring of paralegals,” explained Deborah Peters,
director of recruiting for Major Legal Services in Cleveland.
Despite noting a slow down — or the
potential for a slow down — in several legal markets throughout the
United States, placement experts in general are not overly worried about
the future of the legal employment marketplace. Many legal staffing
professionals are hesitant to sound any alarms, and have emphasized the
continued growth of legal assistant opportunities as an important
Some even pointed to advantages of the
slowing economy such as the potential for increased demand for temporary
paralegal services and expanding training opportunities for working
However a few areas of concern were
consistently noted by the placement experts interviewed.
Some law firms, small to mid-sized firms in particular, have
recently slowed or placed a freeze on the hiring of entry-level
Terry Murphy, vice president of Kelly
Law Registry in Troy, Mich., said his company’s regional offices have
reported either a “slight slowdown in hiring or institution of hiring
freezes. When firms are hiring, they prefer seasoned veterans for mid-
to upper-level pay because these hires will not require extensive
training and can produce income faster and at higher billable hours.”
Karen Maheu, managing director for
Contract Counsel’s Detroit office concurred with Murphy regarding
entry-level paralegals, and noted that in response to the economics of
the moment, many firms have placed an emphasis on bringing in seasoned
paralegals when hiring. This requirement, according to Maheu, is rooted
in the belief that experienced paralegals can be more effective
immediately, with less effort and expense in training and correcting
“[Firms] are asking for people who do
not need training, who have the right educational credentials, and more
often, firms are seeking people who have a solid work history,” Maheu
Corporate legal departments are placing
increased emphasis on stable work histories to ensure long-term
relationships with new hires, according to Merle Isgett, senior director
at Spherion Corp., headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Above all,
the person must present well and have a track record of reliability and
the ability to work independently. Not switching employers frequently
[is extremely important],” Isgett explained.
Legal professionals who took advantage
of economic growth to raise their salaries, benefits and
responsibilities through changing jobs are now finding, according to
most recruiters, that the pendulum has swung back in the opposite
direction. According to Isgett, periodic changes in employment over the
last few years leave employers questioning loyalty and dependability in
employment candidates. Paralegals need to demonstrate stability and
solid experience to firms. Given the time and expense expended in hiring
and training legal assistants, evidence of consistent dedication and
loyalty is becoming increasingly important to law firms and corporate
legal departments concerned about the economy and paralegal retention.
“[Firms] don’t want to see someone who is willing to hop to another firm
just to make more money,” Isgett explained.
Those paralegals who have not job
hopped excessively and have enjoyed long and rewarding relationships
with their employers may actually find their existing roles expanding as
firms and legal departments adapt to the marketplace. “Firms are slow to
replace paralegals lost through natural attrition. Ideally, they hope to
maintain a mix of entry-level and senior staff, but a few seasoned
veterans are key,” said Elaine Altamar, director of training and
development at Lawcorps Legal Staffing in Washington, D.C.
As such, well-trained and experienced
paralegals now have the ability to seek out greater opportunities within
their current work environments thanks, in part, to a downturn in the
economy. “Specific expertise is always beneficial. Paralegals need to
prove their willingness and ability to move where the activity is.
Loyalty to the firm’s best interests, attitude and ability to learn
quickly are critical,” Altamar said.
Experience Offer Sizzle
Nearly every staffing and recruiting company contacted
emphasized the importance of education for paralegals seeking
employment. Most highly recommended was a four-year degree from an
American Bar Association (ABA)-approved institution in order to grab the
attention of law firms and corporate legal departments looking to fill
paralegal positions. In addition, according to legal experts interviewed
for Legal Assistant Today’s 2000 Salary Survey, published in the
March/April 2001 edition, paralegal education is of vital importance for
competitive marketplace performance.
“Large law firms are looking for
bachelor’s degrees with a 3.0 [grade point average] or better with no
legal experience. They have legal assistant managers who can train the
entry-level legal assistants. Smaller firms or corporations, however,
usually require a bachelor’s degree and a paralegal certificate from an
ABA-approved paralegal school. The smaller firms or corporations don’t
have the personnel to train, and rely on the schools for [properly]
trained people,” according to Pat Taylor, president of Pat Taylor and
Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C.
Consistently, each of the staffing and
recruiting firms included in Legal Assistant Today’s hiring trends
survey noted education as No. 1 on most employers’ lists of priorities,
followed immediately by practical experience.
Marsha Fullard Carr, paralegal
recruiter for Special Counsel in Washington, D.C. agreed. “Many large
firms consider a bachelor’s degree a prerequisite for consideration of
the applicant’s resumé. Smaller firms are usually more flexible
regarding this requirement. However, the most important criteria overall
is probably years of experience.”
Unfortunately, there are times when a strength can become, at
least for a time, a weakness as well.
Although Carr and other placement, education and paralegal experts all
agree on the importance of practical experience, there are rare
instances when such vital skills and experience can work against you.
Marilyn Dupies, CLA, CAS, knows this
all too well.
Dupies graduated from the University of
California, Los Angeles in 1977 and had worked as a paralegal for 23
years. During her employment with solo practitioner George E. Moore, she
had a great deal of autonomy and handled cases, as she said, “from start
to finish” under Moore’s direction. In August 2000, Dupies’ employer of
17 years, Moore died of pancreatic cancer.
When it became obvious he was losing
his battle with cancer, Dupies began planning for the future and tried
to find employment.
“One firm told me I would be bored.
Another firm told me I was too advanced to fit into the structure of
their firm. I was dismayed,” Dupies explained.
While she sent out large numbers of
resumés and contacted recruiters regularly, Dupies said her job search
took nearly five months, and she said the process was daunting.
Meanwhile, she spent three long months closing up Moore’s practice while
continuing to search for meaningful employment.
“My skill level and my age were both a
detriment in searching for a job. I see that as unreasonable.
Unfortunately, most firms don’t have paralegals who do work as varied as
I was doing. As a result, many attorneys have not really learned how to
efficiently utilize a paralegal,” Dupies explained.
Fortunately for Dupies, her search,
thanks to a tip offered by an expert Moore had worked with, came to a
close in December of last year when she accepted a position with Lopez,
Hodes, Restaino, Milman, Skikos & Polos in Newport Beach, Calif.
For those paralegals actively seeking
employment, Dupies recommends remaining positive about your abilities.
“You can adapt your skills to a new environment, but patience is a big
factor. You also will need to be careful to manage your frustration with
the entire [employment search] process,” she said.
Dupies also explained that one of the
drawbacks to her vast experience as a legal assistant was that potential
employers may have seen her as too expensive to employ.
Another paralegal, whose name was
withheld from publication, has plunged into a situation similar to that
of Dupies. With more than 20 years of experience, Bill Jones (not his
real name) is considering changing firms after a long and successful
history with his current employer.
However, Jones reported being told by
potential employers he was too experienced. He also said he was
convinced the problem had more to do with salary than skill.
Both Dupies and Jones agreed searching
for a job is frustrating business. Adding to the frustration is the
knowledge that, at least at the beginning of each of their searches, the
skills and experience they both have struggled for over the years are
working against them.
From full-time employment searches to working for yourself, a
number of paralegals have attempted to take advantage of both the highs
and the lows of recent economic conditions.
For instance, when unemployment figures
were at their lowest in 1999 and 2000, many paralegals looked to other
firms and corporations to increase their own bottom lines. Now some
paralegals are hoping the road less travelled — that of freelance or
contract work — will hold its own rewards as the economy shifts from
prosperity to just “puddering along,” as President Bush recently said.
Freelance or contract paralegal
opportunities are a bit of a mixed bag, according to respondents. Six
out of 10 placement agencies reported freelance and contract
opportunities were remaining strong or increasing, while four reported
flat or negative growth.
“In this climate, we are seeing a
steady increase in contract paralegal [work]. This climate fluctuates
with the economy. In an excellent economic climate, we see an increase
in permanent placements. In a recessive economy, we see an increase in
contract paralegal [opportunities],” Taylor reported.
However, Loren Lee Mustion, regional
director with Spherion’s Legal Group, disagreed with Taylor’s assessment
of the current legal market, at least in immediate terms.
Noting the tight labor market of early
2000, Mustion said the search for direct hire and temporary or freelance
paralegals was slow. “In the fourth quarter of 2000, temporary and
direct hire business began to taper off as the economy began to slow.
The first half of 2001 continues to show a decrease in temporary
staffing,” Mustion said.
In the long term, however, Mustion said
she sees merit in Taylor’s opinion, noting she believes the continued
demand for paralegal services in the legal market will facilitate
general growth, thus maintaining or even increasing the need for
temporary or freelance paralegal services.
Murphy took a more middle of the road
approach, stating some Kelly Law Registry offices reported decreasing
contract opportunities for paralegals, while other offices reported such
opportunities remained static or had recently increased.
“Rather than hire, [firms and
corporations] will utilize temps to handle the increased work until they
are comfortable that the work will be there down the road and they can
add to the headcount,” Murphy said.
A few placement agencies consistently noted there are a few
regional hot spots where paralegal opportunities continue to grow at
better than average rates.
One such example of growing opportunity
is the nation’s capital. According to Murphy, Washington, D.C.
consistently offers a warm welcome to entry-level paralegals,
“especially in early spring when most firms are evaluating their needs
for the next six months.” Isgett and Taylor concurred, citing the
Washington, D.C. metro area as fertile ground for entry-level paralegals
looking for opportunities to break into the legal industry.
In addition, other high-profile areas
such as Atlanta, New York City, central Florida, Boston and Chicago,
report continued growth opportunities for entry-level paralegals.
Northeast Ohio also offers employment opportunities, however, Peters
cautioned she is seeing signs indicating a possible increase in
competition for legal assistant positions in that region. A similar
scenario is being played out in San Francisco where Isgett said
competition for entry-level paralegal positions remains strong following
the area’s recent dot-com shakedown.
Coupled with strong educational
backgrounds, such opportunities could be a boon to entry-level
paralegals willing to relocate for the right opportunity. However, it’s
important to note that anyone considering relocating for employment
purposes should take care to conduct appropriate, independent research
with local newspapers, legal publications, employment agencies, local
associations and employers to support reports of regional opportunity.
placement experts to identify paralegal specialty areas that are either
benefiting or suffering due to the economy.
Respondents were nearly unanimous in
identifying key areas affected by the current developments in the
For instance, legal transactional work
related to the telecommunications sector seems to have fallen off
steeply throughout the nation, according to Murphy. It seems technology
practice areas in general have also slowed somewhat on both coasts.
Mustion said she noticed a slow down in
corporate and real estate practices, with many transactional practices
in general beginning to reflect the pressures of a downward market
Spherion reported it experienced a
significant decrease in demand for corporate paralegals during the first
half of 2001.
“We are seeing a decrease in the demand
for corporate paralegals as many corporate departments are downsizing,”
On the positive side, Major Legal
Services’ Peters noted a “recent increase in the number of litigation
and bankruptcy searches (for legal assistants) that are being conducted
by our company.”
Specialty areas reaping rewards are,
according to respondents, bankruptcy, general litigation, international
trade, trust and estate law, and intellectual property. In fact,
according to Spherion representatives, intellectual property paralegals
are increasingly in demand despite current economic circumstances.
Murphy confirmed Spherion’s assessment,
stating he is receiving reports of steady intellectual property legal
So what should a legal assistant do to protect him or herself
in a tight economic environment?
Murphy recommended paralegals take the
opportunity to increase their knowledge of technology and computer
skills to position themselves best in the job market. “Become as
technologically proficient as possible. The more a paralegal can do free
through the Internet (fact finding, legal research, etc.) and the better
a paralegal can manage documents electronically, the more valuable the
paralegal is to the employer,” he said. Given the increased penetration
of technology into the legal market, every placement specialist
interviewed emphasized technical skills as a high priority to remain
marketable in the workforce.
Isgett warned paralegals not to
“overestimate their value. There are not the opportunities there once
were to go in-house and snub the law firms.”
However, in a recent independent survey
conducted by Kelly Law Registry of 1,400 attorneys and paralegals, 74
percent indicated they felt confident they would be able to successfully
change jobs within the legal industry during the next three years
despite current economic developments.
A few trends that have lent themselves
to the confidence evidenced in the Kelly survey are increased cross
training, improvements in technical skills and improved availability and
quality of continuing legal education programs. “Acquire as many skills
as possible and diversify your experience. People who can do more than
work in [just] one area of law are able to afford potential employers a
broader range of skills and make themselves more marketable,” Isgett
Given the lack of a clear, long-term economic direction,
placement specialists encouraged paralegals to take heart as the market
fluctuates and to conduct thorough, independent research when seeking
“Since the economic climate is still a
question mark, it may be premature to [make rash assumptions],” Murphy
said. “Most of our branches don’t foresee any major impending legal
industry cutbacks. Certainly we have seen some practice area slow
Recruiters and staffing firms highly
recommend paralegals take advantage of continuing legal education, seek
out training opportunities in areas of law different from their current
practice areas and, for those who find themselves unemployed, consider
temporary or contract work opportunities.
The good news for paralegals concerned
about getting caught in a downsizing squeeze or locked out of the market
by hiring freezes is, in general, qualified paralegal employment
candidates are not unemployed for long. “Paralegals with great
experience are very marketable, and usually are able to find work
quickly,” Carr said.
The consensus among placement
specialists seems to be that paralegals with a solid educational
background and experience can find work within a reasonable time period,
although opinions vary on how long an unemployed paralegal might be out
of the market. “This is difficult to gauge, but a strong paralegal
should not be in the [unemployment] market for longer than three
months,” according to Altamar, which is reassuring for many legal
assistants concerned about the job market. Dupies’ and Jone’s
experiences notwithstanding, placement experts agree the legal job
market remains open, even if that opening is somewhat smaller than
And while there are no guarantees where
paralegals are concerned, staffing experts agree that by taking
advantage of a few of the measures listed here, you can increase the
likelihood of insulating yourself from cutbacks.
For resources to help you in your
particular employment search, check out Legal Assistant Today on the Web
www.legalassistanttoday.com for tips and advice, along with a
“Links” section that includes staffing and recruiting resources to
assist you in your search.
According to Peters, the best advice is
also the most practical: “The best way that paralegals can protect
themselves is to perform their jobs diligently and professionally so
they are indispensable to the success of the company or firm.”